In real life you can decline to be someone’s godfather, but in the cultural sphere nobody asks your permission; you just open the newspaper one day to discover you’re the godfather of punk (Lou Reed) or soul (James Brown) or maybe neoconservatism (Irving Kristol). Eight years ago, Boston filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made a super-low-budget, semi-improvised feature called Funny Ha Ha that was so fresh, lively, and true to its milieu of postcollegiate slackerdom that it sparked a wave of similar projects from such under-the-radar filmmakers as Joe Swanberg (Kissing on the Mouth), Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA), and Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair). Lumped together as “the mumblecore movement” and hyped by a variety of publications (including this one), these filmmakers are now stuck with each other—but none so stuck as Bujalski, who’s been crowned “the godfather of mumblecore.”
Whenever an artistic trend generates so much adoring press a backlash can’t be far behind, and in this case it arrived in the form of a devastating piece by Amy Taubin for the November-December 2007 issue of Film Comment. Mumblecore, she declared, “never was more than a flurry of festival hype and blogosphere branding.” Though the films all shared a shaggy, lo-fi aesthetic, Taubin wrote, their chief defining characteristics were their homogeneity and their insularity: “The directors are all male middle-class Caucasians, and they make movies exclusively about young adults who are involved in heterosexual relationships and who have jobs (when they have them) in workplaces populated almost exclusively by SWMs and SWFs.” Taubin singled out Swanberg, a Chicagoan, in particular, calling his movies “smug and blatantly lazy” and “such fountains of lad-magazine culture that the DVDs might work as Maxim inserts.”
Taubin was more generous toward Katz and Bujalski—both of whom have tried to distance themselves from the term mumblecore. It was coined by Bujalski’s sound engineer at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and Bujalski made the mistake of introducing it into the public lexicon during an interview with indieWIRE. “It’s interesting to have been at the birth of a neologism,” he told the alumni magazine for Boston University, where he once taught film production. “But I never believed it had anything to do with what I was doing. At best, it’s a convenience for people to say, this thing reminds me of that thing. At worst, it’s a way to take a group of filmmakers and dismiss them in one fell swoop.”
The larger problem for Bujalski isn’t the word but what it’s come to represent: a myopic view of the world that both celebrates and panders to a small, disaffected, college-educated audience. Having defined a trend, he now has to worry about that trend defining him.
Beeswax, which screens all week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is Bujalski’s third feature and the first to be conceived and shot since Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2003) turned him into a rising indie star. For the most part, it’s just as insular and homogeneous as any of the films Taubin rapped in Film Comment. It takes place in Austin, Texas, the little countercultural cocoon that launched Bujalski’s career, and most of the action centers on a funky little vintage clothing boutique favored by college students and the like. Its primary characters are all young, straight, white, middle-class, and college educated. And like so many other mumblecore movies, Beeswax is largely preoccupied with sexual and romantic maneuvering, as a young couple who’ve broken up circle each other tentatively and get back together.
Like many good storytellers, however, Bujalski trades breadth for depth, transcending his narrow social parameters by zeroing in on individuals. For all three of his films he’s reversed the typical practice of creating characters and casting actors to play them; instead he starts with people he knows socially and invents a story around them. Beeswax is about a pair of twins, Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) and Lauren (Maggie Hatcher)—one of whom, Jeannie, is paraplegic. Though their facial features are identical, Lauren is conventionally slim, while Jeannie is built like someone who’s spent years in a wheelchair—she has a pronounced gut but muscular arms and shoulders. In a Hollywood movie this odd comparison-contrast would be the locus of the story, but in Beeswax, aside from a handful of scenes in which Jeannie requires minor physical assistance, it barely figures at all. The characters seem more real when their idiosyncrasies are taken for granted.
Taubin called Bujalski “a poet of demurral, hesitation, and noncommitment,” and one reason the mumblecore tag stuck is that it so aptly reflects the verbal groping and mushy equivocation common to many of the films. Yet Bujalski’s portraits of Generation Whatever can be remarkably exacting once you get past the dialogue to the characters’ actual behavior. Beeswax, as its title suggests, considers not just love relationships but business relationships, and the similarities between them are striking. Jeannie, who runs the clothing shop, is having serious communication problems with her business partner and is beginning to worry about getting sued. Her old boyfriend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), is a law student preparing to take the bar, and when she meets up with him to get his advice on the situation, they wind up going to bed together. Before long their romance has started up again, and though neither of them ever admits it, Merrill’s biggest attraction is his ability to calm her fears about her rapidly deteriorating business situation.
While Beeswax was being made, Bujalski was also writing a screenplay adaptation of Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision for producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures. “I’d like to make a studio film, and Lord knows I’d love to get a studio paycheck,” Bujalski told the Jewish hipster mag Heeb. “The trick is finding a way to do it where whatever talent I have comes to bear as useful. No studio wants me to be in a situation where I’m going against all my instincts.” No production dates have been announced, but if Bujalski actually signs on the dotted line to direct a movie for Paramount, I’ll be curious to learn whether this singular indie talent can thrive in the mainstream or whether he, too, will be ruing the day he went into business with the wrong person. As he must understand already, a man is known by the company he keeps.